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Consultants Recommend Temporarily Closing Kansas City's American Jazz Museum

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
A new assessment makes 26 recommendations for the troubled American Jazz Museum

Consultants hired by the city of Kansas City, Missouri, to assess the wellbeing of the American Jazz Museum on Monday recommended closing the museum temporarily.

The museum, according to the consultants' report, is "in need of complete rethinking, akin to starting a new museum." The report called for a "complete rebirth, starting with its leadership, but continuing with a revamped financial model, visitor experience, and operational infrastructure."

City Council members had requested this evaluation in October, after months of challenges at the museum, including a $1 million deficit. 

The 62-page report, prepared by Museum Management Consultants, Inc., focused on areas such as vision, visitor experience, collections, business model, organizational structure and leadership.

Its assessment of the museum's vision: "Despite being open for 20 years, AJM lacks a clearly defined vision and identity."

Regarding visitor experience: "The visitor experience is seen as stale and offering little to entice repeat visits ...  AJM is static and uninspiring, which is particularly surprising given the dynamic story that underpins its mission."

On staffing: "The Museum's staff leadership has been responsible for numerous missteps, questionable decisions, and a lack of transparency." Although the museum's board of directors cares about the museum, it "did not foresee the financial crisis and is lacking in its fundraising role."

The assessment lists 26 recommendations to align the museum with industry standards and increase accountability and sustainability. Five recommendations involve immediate action, including the closure of the museum "for a predetermined period of time." A temporary closure for less than a year, the report said, would allow the organization to "save costs and focus on basic operating needs."

Other high priorities: rebooting the staff and board leadership; creating a planning committee of city, board, staff and community leaders; conducting an inclusive strategic planning process; and contracting with exhibit designers to rethink "the entire museum experience."

In a letter to council members, City Manager Troy Schulte wrote that he's seeking "honest appraisal" and that he hoped to incorporate many of the recommendations into the museum's new management contract beginning on May 1.

He added that he hopes musicians will be involved in a master planning process and that their perspectives will be taken into account for future operations. 

"While I would never consider closing the Museum in its entirety," Schulte wrote to council members, "I would like to hear your thoughts." 

In response, Councilman Jermaine Reed wrote: "It is important to note and heartening to understand that ... stakeholders are very interested in sustaining the AJM organization."

But, Reed added, "I strongly recommend that we not close the AJM in its entirety during this important inflection point. Ensuring the museum remains an active partner in the 18th & Vine District ... ensures more inclusive community involvement and engagement with the strategic planning process."

Reed suggested that the museum's leadership have 15 working days to respond to the recommendations, which is similar to the process when a department has been evaluated by the city auditor's office. This response would likely be presented to the Finance & Governance Committee before May 1, when the new contract between the city and the museum is expected to go into effect. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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